24. Living with Uncertainty

Expectations & Hopes Meditations: 24. Living with Uncertainty

Jer 39:11,12  Now Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon had given these orders about Jeremiah through Nebuzaradan commander of the imperial guard: “Take him and look after him; don’t harm him but do for him whatever he asks.”

The previous study took us up to the period pre-Exile, while Jeremiah was prophesying over the closing days of Jerusalem.  It is difficult for us to comprehend the chaos that must have followed the sacking of Jerusalem. The city has been destroyed and most of the people are being taken to Babylon. Some Jews, as we’ll shortly see, had fled to surrounding nations, but most were taken captive and deported.

Jeremiah’s Release: In the city, Nebuzaradan, commander of the imperial guard, had released Jeremiah after the instructions in our verses above he spoke to Jeremiah (40:1,2) and added “today I am freeing you from the chains on your wrists. Come with me to Babylon, if you like, and I will look after you; but if you do not want to, then don’t come. Look, the whole country lies before you; go wherever you please.” However, before Jeremiah turned to go, Nebuzaradan added, “Go back to Gedaliah son of Ahikam, the son of Shaphan, whom the king of Babylon has appointed over the towns of Judah, and live with him among the people, or go anywhere else you please.” (40:4,5) How amazing was that! Gedaliah was appointed governor of the land and the commander gave Jeremiah carte blanche to go where he wanted, to Babylon or stay with Gedaliah. He chose the latter.

People Return: Then we read, “When all the Jews in Moab, Ammon, Edom and all the other countries heard that the king of Babylon had left a remnant in Judah and had appointed Gedaliah son of Ahikam, the son of Shaphan, as governor over them, they all came back to the land of Judah, to Gedaliah at Mizpah, from all the countries where they had been scattered. And they harvested an abundance of wine and summer fruit.” (40:11,12) Signs of resettling, signs that perhaps peace would come to the land, even under the king of Babylon. But life isn’t always smooth and, as I recently wrote, one historian has suggested that the history of the world is the history of wars, of upheavals in human affairs.

Upheaval & Questioning: Now a word was brought to Gedaliah that the Ammonite king had sent a man by the name of Ishmael to kill him (Jer 40:13,14) but he didn’t believe the men. Nevertheless, it was true and Ishmael rose up and killed Gedaliah (41:1-10), but there was a reaction against him and he fled (41:11-15). The survivors were fearful of what the king of Babylon’s reaction would be, and decided to flee to Egypt (41:16-18). However, before they did they sought out Jeremiah and asked him to seek out the Lord and find out what the Lord wanted for them (42:1-6). Ten days later Jeremiah received a word from the Lord that they should remain in the Land and He would bless them there (41:7-22). Moreover, if they went to Egypt it would be disobedience and they would die there by famine or sword. It was a strong but clear word.

To Egypt: Some foolish men rose and took the leadership and rejected God’s word through Jeremiah and forced he and the other people to go to Egypt (43:1-7).  In Egypt the Lord again speaks through Jeremiah and told the people that Nebuchadnezzar would come and vanquish Egypt (43:8-13). The word then continued to warn that all who had fled would die there (44:1-14).  Yet the people rejected the word and turned back to idolatry (44:15-19). Jeremiah brought a final word that reinforced the previous words – you will die here (44:20-30). Apart from various additional prophecies added to the end of Jeremiah and an historical recap, this is the last we hear of him. What a tumultuous story. But what does this story say to us today? What principles are there to teach us?

Life out of control: The first and most obvious thing from this story is that, man or woman of God or not, we live in a fallen world and the circumstances of that world are not always in our hands. The Lord clearly presided over this time in the life of Israel and prompted Nebuchadnezzar to come against Israel to deport them and discipline and change them. Within that He made sure that Jeremiah was spared and was given his freedom. Nevertheless, the Lord allows humanity to exercise its free will and so evil men are permitted to rise up.

Purging: Now we might suggest that the Lord saw that the hearts of the surviving remnant were not purged of their sin of idolatry that had been seen for decades, and this is confirmed by their behaviour when they get to Egypt. It may be, therefore, that the Lord allowed this train of events, to remove these un-sanctified people from the land. They have been given every opportunity to turn back to the Lord having been given a second chance in the land, but their hearts are clearly not changed. It is going to take forty years of life in Babylon before the hearts of the people as a whole can be changed.

Our expectation – and this is a major lesson – is that hearts can be changed easily, but that is untrue. It often takes major pressures to transform a heart, such is the folly of sin. Very often history shows that a precursor to revival is the nation reaching rock bottom morally, to the point where people are crying out for help. Simply knowing the truth does not mean people will respond to it. That is the overall lesson about people. But what about Jeremiah? He demonstrates that although our expectation might have been after the downfall of Jerusalem that he was safe, his safety is not the big issue. It is whether he can remain the mouthpiece of God regardless of what is going on around him.

Our Call: For you and me, the first call is to faithfulness. Will we remain true and faithful to the Lord regardless of what people round about us are doing? But second, will we remain as obedient witnesses to the Lord, continuing to fulfil whatever ministry He has given us, regardless of how people are responding? I have often said in these studies that the Lord calls us, gives us a vision and then that vision has to die before He raises it up and fulfils it. Years ago, the Lord said to me, ‘I don’t call you to success but to obedience.’

We might look at Jeremiah and think, well, he didn’t do very well did he! He ended up with a disobedient people in Egypt where presumably he eventually died. Unfulfilled. Well, actually, no. He fulfilled his ministry right up to the end. His role was to be God’s mouthpiece wherever he was. He spoke the word again and again to Jerusalem, and they disregarded him and so Jerusalem fell. He continued to bring the word to the surviving remnant, but they failed to heed it and so died in Egypt. His call was to speak. It was up to the people how they responded, and they would be answerable to God because they had heard and they knew. Now they would be held accountable. Jeremiah was a total success because he managed to keep going right to the very end. The people? That’s another story.

So, to conclude, don’t have any romantic ideas about sin and the state of people’s hearts. Our call is to be witnesses. How people respond is down to them. Remain faithful, remain true, remain obedient, do all you can to reveal Him. THAT is our calling!  Amen.

11. Action Parts 2 & 3

Meditations from Ezekiel: 11.  Action Parts 2 & 3

Ezek 4:9    “Take wheat and barley, beans and lentils, millet and spelt; put them in a storage jar and use them to make bread for yourself. You are to eat it during the 390 days you lie on your side.

Recap: So we have seen this new prophet being instructed to go to his home and make a picture-model of Jerusalem under siege and he is to lie on his side prophesying against it for a little over twelve months before lying on his other side and doing the same for a little over a month.  The message will be quite clear and the other exiles round about will hear and the word will spread – most likely back to Jerusalem. But that was only Part 1 of the big picture of what will happen.

Part 2 – Famine: Then come instructions of what he is to eat and drink during this time: Take wheat and barley, beans and lentils, millet and spelt; put them in a storage jar and use them to make bread for yourself. You are to eat it during the 390 days you lie on your side. Weigh out twenty shekels of food to eat each day and eat it at set times. Also measure out a sixth of a hin of water and drink it at set times. Eat the food as you would a barley cake; bake it in the sight of the people, using human excrement for fuel.” (v.9-12) Put very simply, these are bare existence rations and the Lord then explains, “The LORD said, “In this way the people of Israel will eat defiled food among the nations where I will drive them.” (v.13)

This is a challenge to all they have known in the past and Ezekiel revolts against the idea: “Then I said, “Not so, Sovereign LORD! I have never defiled myself. From my youth until now I have never eaten anything found dead or torn by wild animals. No unclean meat has ever entered my mouth.” “Very well,” he said, “I will let you bake your bread over cow manure instead of human excrement.” (v.14,15) The Lord relents and allows a marginally better situation. “He then said to me: “Son of man, I will cut off the supply of food in Jerusalem. The people will eat rationed food in anxiety and drink rationed water in despair, for food and water will be scarce. They will be appalled at the sight of each other and will waste away because of their sin.” (v.16,17) What we have been reading is warning of famine conditions that will come to Jerusalem when it is under siege. The warning is very clear.

Part 3 – Destruction: There is yet a third part of all this to be conveyed to the exiles via Ezekiel’s acted out pictures. “Now, son of man, take a sharp sword and use it as a barber’s razor to shave your head and your beard. Then take a set of scales and divide up the hair.” (5:1) This, we will soon see comes at the end of the siege. He is to cut his hair and use it in various ways to demonstrate what will happen to the people. His hair represents the people of Jerusalem. “When the days of your siege come to an end, burn a third of the hair with fire inside the city. Take a third and strike it with the sword all around the city. And scatter a third to the wind. For I will pursue them with drawn sword.” (v.2) A third of it is to be burnt on the tablet portraying Jerusalem, and a third is to be struck with a sword and a third scattered to the wind. Again there will be a few strands to be saved and tucked in the fold of his garment and yet even of those a few will be burned up. “But take a few strands of hair and tuck them away in the folds of your garment. Again, take a few of these and throw them into the fire and burn them up. A fire will spread from there to the whole house of Israel.” (v.3,4)

Fulfillment: At the latter part of the book of Jeremiah we see Jeremiah and a small remnant being saved (see Jer 39:11-40:6) Yet there was still upset among the survivors and more died (Jer 41) and some fled while others stayed with Jeremiah in the surroundings of the city but still they rejected God’s word through Jeremiah and decided to leave for Egypt but Jeremiah prophesied their destruction there by Nebuchadnezzar still. (see Jer 43,44). In the final part of Jeremiah, in the historical section, we find record of the two year siege of Jerusalem (Jer 52:4,5) and we read, “By the ninth day of the fourth month the famine in the city had become so severe that there was no food for the people to eat.” (Jer 52:6) and thus the word about famine was fulfilled. In the accounts that followed we see those who fled the city, the fire that destroyed the city and those who died there, and those who were carried away into exile.

Explanation: Then comes the first real ‘word’ that comes from the Lord that explains why all this will happen: “This is what the Sovereign LORD says: This is Jerusalem, which I have set in the center of the nations, with countries all around her. Yet in her wickedness she has rebelled against my laws and decrees more than the nations and countries around her. She has rejected my laws and has not followed my decrees. “Therefore this is what the Sovereign LORD says: You have been more unruly than the nations around you and have not followed my decrees or kept my laws. You have not even conformed to the standards of the nations around you.” (Ezek 5:5-7) Observe.

First note, “Jerusalem, which I have set in the center of the nations, with countries all around her.” (v.5) In Isaiah’s words, the Lord had made Jerusalem to be a light to the nations, revealing Him and His plans for the earth.

Second, the people of Jerusalem had again and against forsaken the Lord: “she has rebelled against my laws and decrees.”  It will be because of that that they will be answerable to the Lord and everything here follows.

But, even worse, third, they had been worse than the pagan nations around them!  “more than the nations and countries around her…. You have not even conformed to the standards of the nations around you.” Such is the effect of Sin in the world. Because of Jeremiah and Ezekiel, they could never say they had not known.

Historical Context: As we come to the end of these verses, can we hold on to the big picture that is here. The Lord has spoken to Israel and to the leaders in Jerusalem again and again and again through the prophetic word and they have not heeded Him but continued deeper and deeper into idolatry. The Lord watches and sees there is no turning their hearts. Some three or four years back from this point, Nebuchadnezzar had come against Jerusalem a second time (the first being in 605BC when Daniel and his friends were taken into exile) and we are now somewhere about the middle of Zedekiah’s ten year reign in Jerusalem. Zedekiah is there courtesy of Nebuchadnezzar but he is foolish and thinks he can rebel against him and get away with it. The writing, as we say, was on the wall, quite plainly, but still Israel’s sin persists. The fact is that we are part of this foolish human race and although we may be redeemed we can still get it wrong. May these accounts of this period of history make us even more determined to not let ourselves drift away from the Lord in any way.

25. To Ezekiel

“God turned up” Meditations: 25 :  To Ezekiel

Ezek 1:2,3 On the fifth of the month–it was the fifth year of the exile of King Jehoiachin– the word of the LORD came to Ezekiel the priest, the son of Buzi, by the Kebar River in the land of the Babylonians. There the hand of the LORD was upon him.

I think sometimes we should give special credit to filmmakers. Their work is sometimes amazing. I’m thinking here of the film Independence Day. The arrival of the alien space machines in the thick billowing clouds made me think of Ezekiel’s revelation. It is absolutely amazing! The location of Ezekiel at this time is also something to be noted and amazed at. The fact of the matter is that he is one of the exiles who has been carried away by Nebuchadnezzar and is now having to live in a foreign land – but he’s still God’s man. Simple lesson in passing: if we’re Christians in a land under God’s judgment we may suffer some of the things the nation suffers – but we’re still to be witnesses in it.

So there he is in the land of the Babylonians, an exile – and God turns up in a most dramatic way; in fact one of the most dramatic ways in the Old Testament: I looked, and I saw a windstorm coming out of the north–an immense cloud with flashing lightning and surrounded by brilliant light. The center of the fire looked like glowing metal, and in the fire was what looked like four living creatures. In appearance their form was that of a man, but each of them had four faces and four wings. (v.4-6) Well, we won’t go into the detail of all of it, you can read it yourself, but even here we start to catch a sense of the incredible: storm, clouds, flashing lightning (ordinary so far) brilliant light, a central fire like glowing metal, strange creatures. As I said, Independence Day did it well. Perhaps they had read Ezekiel!

Later we read, “Above the expanse over their heads was what looked like a throne of sapphire, and high above on the throne was a figure like that of a man. I saw that from what appeared to be his waist up he looked like glowing metal, as if full of fire, and that from there down he looked like fire; and brilliant light surrounded him. Like the appearance of a rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day, so was the radiance around him. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD. When I saw it, I fell facedown, and I heard the voice of one speaking” (v.26-28) There, in the midst of the incredible vision (see 1:1), there is a figure. When God revealed Himself in the most perfect way on earth, it was in the form of a man, His Son, Jesus Christ. There in the centre of the vision He reveals Himself to Ezekiel in an understandable way, and yet He is still an incredible, glorious being with incredible surroundings.

Now why, we may ask ourselves, did the Lord reveal Himself in such an incredible way to Ezekiel? We aren’t told and so we are left to speculate. Was it to counter all that Ezekiel might have been feeling? He is a Jew who has been snatched from his country which appears at the end of its life. It appears that God is about to give up Israel. It is the end; they are no longer His chosen people – or so it might appear, especially when you are an exile in a foreign land.

So the Lord comes with this incredible vision which leaves Ezekiel in no doubt as to who it is – and he is shattered. Then the Lord speaks and we see some more why it may be that He is coming to him in this way: “And he said to me, “Son of man, listen carefully and take to heart all the words I speak to you. Go now to your countrymen in exile and speak to them. Say to them, `This is what the Sovereign LORD says,’ whether they listen or fail to listen.” (Ezek 3:10,11) Previously He had warned, “The people to whom I am sending you are obstinate and stubborn,” (Ezek 2:4) so Ezekiel’s calling was to go to his own countrymen in exile and challenge them about the Lord – but they are going to be obstinate and will not take kindly to what he says. Put this together with Ezekiel’s own negative feelings about being an Israelite in exile, and you begin to see why the Lord revealed Himself to Ezekiel in such a dramatic way.

So why doesn’t the Lord reveal Himself to us in such ways? Two reasons! First you aren’t in the crisis situation that Ezekiel was in and, second, we have the indwelling Holy Spirit, the word of God, and the support, encouragement and direction of the church to help, guide and direct us. There are times when God does turn up in dramatic fashion but if that happens it is almost certainly because you are in big trouble and the Lord knows you need big encouragement!  The rare occasions in the Bible (here, with Isaiah in Isaiah 6, and in Revelation to John) that the Lord does reveal something of heaven breaking through on earth, remind us that we are dealing with an awesome God who, in His graciousness, mostly keeps Himself hidden so that we aren’t destroyed by the immensity of His presence. One day we will see Him face to face but now, for most of the time, He hides Himself to preserve us! For that we should be thankful. When we do see these times they should evoke awe and worship in us. May it be so!